When visions of Italian food come to mind, there is an array of cheeses like Parmigiano Reggiano, ricotta, provolone, and pecorino. There are meats like prosciutto, guanciale, porchetta, and mortadella. And then there’s pasta, shining gold from eggs beaten into flour and rolled to perfection, oozing with Italian cheeses and meats and emulsifying in ways the gods intended for food to be eaten.
The natural question then might be to ask: what in the world is a chef doing making vegan Italian food?
Well, Chef Tara Punzone of the West Hollywood restaurant Pura Vita is here to make you re-think everything you know about Italian food and how you can eat it in all the ways you love without any of the animal guilt in the process.
“I’ve been a vegan 30 years and it was originally for animal reasons. But growing up in an Italian family, I had to seriously explain to my family that I didn’t want anything to do with their traditional cooking any longer. I just always loved animals so much,” says Punzone.
Punzone hails from New York and stopped eating meat as a kid because of her love of animals. That diet grew into a vegan one not long after and has taken her on a quest to perfect the food her mom would make in a completely plant-based way.
“It started with specific things that I grew up eating that are traditional in my family. We’re southern Italian so it’s a lot of tomato, peppers, olive oil, so that was the initial approach with those flavor profiles. But I was trying to tap into things people are looking for when it comes to Italian food in general.”
Touring Punzone’s menu, you’ll find classic dishes like meatballs in marinara, caprese and Cesare salads, and carbonara and seafood linguini pastas. Substituting the cheese, the chef uses cashews and other nuts to create succulent and savory concoctions that imitate mozzarella, ricotta, and parmesan with exactitude. Her ‘meats’ meanwhile are original recipes that combine lentils, mushrooms, and other ‘I can’t believe this isn’t meat’ items. For her carbonara, the chef magically turns avocados into eggs and macadamia nuts into cream and substitutes guanciale with shiitake mushrooms that have a distinctly bacon’y flavor.
For any Italian purists reading this, it’s important to understand that Punzone’s goal is to serve you an Italian meal in every way you’re used to eating. And with her wizardry in the kitchen, if you were to blindfold yourself before eating, sipped on a biodynamic Nero D’Avola wine from Sicily and dove into her Black Magic Lasagna with black truffle cream and pesto, you’d be hard-pressed to ever think you’re eating a vegan meal – and that’s exactly what she wants and achieves in spades.
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